Saturday, May 26, 2012

EARLIER this month in Beijing, China and America held the latest instalment of their Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), a regular—and by most accounts productive—series of high-level bilateral meetings. Attending were America’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner. Broad-ranging and important issues like trade, currency, nuclear proliferation filled the agenda. But most attention was focused on the daring flight of a blind lawyer and activist, Chen Guangcheng, from his illegal home detention in Shandong to the American embassy in Beijing.

America has long felt free to lecture China—and many other countries too—on its shortcomings and failures in the human-rights department. America having never been entirely free of shortcomings itself, there was ever some degree of hypocrisy in this approach. It has long been the common view in China, among officials and common folk alike, that American criticism depends on keeping “double standards” and that America ought to have questions of its own to answer, about things like discrimination against minorities, the long-ago subjugation of indigenous peoples and economic inequality at home, to say nothing of hegemonic behaviour abroad. China's tit-fot-tat annual report on the state of human rights in America, the most recent of which was released on May 25th (the text is carried in full here and in English at China Daily) is only more of the same.

But since September 11th 2001 such questions, it would seem, should have become even sharper. Tactics and policies adopted by the administration of George W. Bush (and largely continued by Barack Obama’s), to expand executive power and arbitrary powers of law enforcement, have made them so.

However wrongheaded America’s deteriorating regard for basic civil liberties may be, there are still vast differences between China and the United States that need to be highlighted. Notwithstanding trends of the past decade, the presence of an independent judiciary and the rights of free expression enjoyed in America provide imperfect but powerful checks to executive power—of a sort that barely exist under China’s one-party rule. Unfortunately these checks are of no use to the many civilians affected by America’s conduct abroad. Drone attacks in particular, it will be noted in some quarters, have visited greater harm on more innocents than anything that ever befell Mr Chen.

We ought to be able to avoid mounting a moral-equivalency defence of China’s system, not to mention plumbing the depths of the debate about the state of civil liberties and rule of law in America. Let us note simply that America’s standing on the moral high ground is not quite as steady it used to be, especially when it comes to the sort of issues at play in Mr Chen’s case.

At some point during the Clinton trip, one might have expected to see Chinese officials or commentators seizing on the irony displayed in such statements. Yet American officials say privately that their Chinese counterparts are reluctant to take that tack. And there is surprisingly little that turns up in Chinese-language internet searches matching “Chen Guangcheng” with terms like “Guantánamo” or “double standard”.

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